Music as Medicine Reduce pain, Improve Memory and Lift Your Mood
by Barbara Else, MT-BC
It’s no secret that listening to a mellow song can calm us or that listening to an upbeat song can make us feel energized. But music’s power over our minds and bodies runs deeper than people tend to realize. Music can trigger the release of mood-altering neurochemicals in the brain and activate brain regions associated with memory, emotion and creativity. Researchers have discovered that music can reduce pain…pull people out of depressed moods…spur recall of long-ago events…and more.
But you might not reap the potential benefits of music simply by flipping on the radio. The songs you select matter, as does the way you interact with those songs—participating in the creation of music tends to be more effective than just listening. Don’t worry if you can’t play an instrument or carry a tune—even humming, singing privately in the shower and/or drumming a couple of pencils on a table can convey the benefits of music creation.
Here are four ways to use music therapy to improve your life…
Use Music to Reduce Pain
In 2016, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 97 earlier studies that examined the effect music has on pain. Their conclusion: Preferred music can reduce the pain patients report on the one-to-10 pain scale by an average of more than one point, which is enough to lower someone’s pain level from “distressing” to “tolerable.” This reduction in pain tends to reduce people’s use of addictive opioids and other painkillers.
What to do: If you’re experiencing a low-to-moderate level of pain—something closer to discomfort than agony—listen to (or better yet hum or sing) music that you find relaxing. The calming effect that this music has on your brain is likely to lessen your sensation of pain. Which songs and genres to choose vary from person to person—the music someone else finds relaxing, you might find irritating. Still, if you’re not sure where to start, you could enter words such as “mellow” or “relaxing” into a music-streaming website or app such as Spotify (Spotify.com, free for the ad-supported version to $9.99 per month for the ad-free premium version) or Amazon Prime Music (Amazon.com, included with Amazon Prime, which costs about $13 a month or $119 a year). Listen to the songs that these searches turn up, and create a playlist of only those that are calming for you.
If you experience substantial pain, instead listen to songs that you consider extremely engaging. These are songs that you cannot help but sing or hum along with every time you hear them—whether it’s a show tune such as “Seventy-six Trombones” or classic rock such as The Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” They’re songs that pull your attention away from other thoughts when they come on the radio. These songs are so powerful that they actually can distract your mind from your pain, to a degree. (Relaxing songs tend not to capture the attention sufficiently to overcome substantial pain.)
You probably already know what songs you find especially engaging—they’re likely the songs that you’ve been listening to over and over again for years. There’s a good chance that many of them date back to when you were in your teens, 20s or early 30s—the music people listen to during this stage of life can become so deeply ingrained that it has special power over the mind. Create a playlist of these engaging songs to listen to during painful medical or dental procedures…while waiting for treatment in hospital emergency rooms…while waiting for painkillers to take effect…and during other times of significant pain.
Use Music to Remember the Past
Researchers have determined that among the regions of the brain activated when we listen to or create music are regions associated with autobiographical memories. That’s why when we hear a song we heard frequently many years earlier, the song isn’t all we remember—we often recall events from our own lives that happened around the time when the song was new to us.
What to do: Couples who have been together for many decades often feel closer to each other when they listen to (or sing or play) songs they originally listened to together long ago. The songs revive memories of experiences and adventures they enjoyed together. This can be especially beneficial when one partner is suffering from dementia—remarkably, music has the power to recover autobiographical memories even for these people who are slowly losing their past. The songs people listened to in their teens, 20s and early 30s are especially likely to be tied to personal memories.
Try this: If you’re caring for someone who has late-stage dementia and you need to get a message through, such as “it’s time for dinner,” see if you can capture his/her attention using the melodies or lyrics you know he loved. They are most likely to be effective.
This music also can be useful for reminiscing about the old days with friends…or when trying to reconstruct family history and life reviews for descendants.
Use Music to Remember Things Later
Music doesn’t just help us recall the distant past. It also can help us remember day-to-day details. A study published in Memory & Cognition determined that people are more likely to recall a phrase if it is sung as a song lyric than if it is simply spoken. That finding hints at a useful trick for remembering any detail.
What to do: Rather than tell yourself to remember, The car is parked on 12th Street, as you walk away from it, sing that line to yourself a few times—any melody will do. And if there’s something you chronically misplace or forget to do, create a habit of singing about it. Example: If you frequently misplace your car keys, you might sing, “I’m hanging my keys on the hook by the door,” each time you enter your house.
Use Music to Improve Your Mood
A 2011 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that listening to music can stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain—the same mood-lifting neurochemical that gets released when people have sex, use drugs or enjoy a favorite food. In fact, music doesn’t just pick us up when we’re feeling a little down—it actually can help overcome clinical depression. Findings: A 2017 analysis of nine earlier studies concluded that music therapy accompanied by other depression treatments was more effective than those other treatments on their own.
What to do: When you hear a song that makes you want to sing…makes you want to get up and move…and/or simply makes you feel good, make note of it—these are the songs that are especially likely to trigger the release of mood-improving neurochemicals for you. Create a playlist of these songs, and listen to it when you feel low. Sing, hum, drum or dance along to these songs—an article in British Journal of Psychiatry speculated that the potential physicality of music might contribute to its ability to lift depression.
A board-certified music therapist can provide guidance about how to take full advantage of the benefits of music. To find a music therapist in your area, visit MusicTherapy.org/about/find.